The simple, satisfying pleasure of a good potpie is so durable that even Swanson's couldn't ruin it. But nothing compares to making the real thing from scratch, and once you've got the classic recipe down you can take it gourmet, just as a host of fine chefs are doing these days with recipes that include duck, lobster, and even Guinness fillings. John Brand, executive chef at Colorado Springs's Charles Court at the Broadmoor, features a kabocha squash and duck potpie on his menu, making for a Franco-Asian interpretation of the old standby. But don't let the fancy fillings scare you. For Brand, the basics of a potpie are still relatively simple, no matter what you put in it.
Start with the right equipment. "I recommend that you get a decent baking dish. That's key," Brand says. "A cast-iron pan is what I prefer, the kind with the handle." He says that cast iron holds heat better than glass, and it also makes a great serving dish. What's more, "potpies are typically a rustic dish, and cast iron complements that. It's homey and represents comfort."
For meat, Brand has a few suggestions: "Short ribs, duck, a secondary cut of meat – something you would cook a long time. Leftover roasts are fine. Turkey is good around Thanksgiving." But pork is the most delicious. A pork shoulder can be dry-rubbed and put in the oven at the lowest setting, 170 to 200 degrees, overnight (or 6 to 12 hours). "It's hands-free cooking," says Brand. "This way the meat cooks and bastes itself. Let the oven do the work."
Of course we're all familiar with cubed carrots and frozen peas, but Brand advocates a fresher route. Chard, spinach, leeks, potatoes, squash, and parsnips are great seasonal options that also help add moisture to the pie. Simply quarter or halve bigger veggies, add a bit of olive oil, salt, pepper, and brown sugar or maple syrup, then roast until soft. Brand also uses a strong cheese, like goat, Gruyère, or Parmesan, to add moisture. As for spices, salt and pepper are all you need; the salt acts as an astringent, pulling out excess moisture from ingredients. It also caramelizes any sugars in the pie, adding great flavor.
Store-bought crust works just fine (Brand recommends Pepperidge Farm or Sara Lee), as do phyllo dough, corn bread, and even Bisquick. But if you're not going to make the bottom half of the pie crust yourself (which tends to be the most labor-intensive), you have to at least make the top. Brand suggests painting the pie crust top with egg, milk, or butter before baking to help it brown. Then sprinkle on a bit of paprika, poppy seeds, or fennel. "The butter will act as a glue, keeping the seasoning in place," says Brand.
Before adding anything to it, heat the pan in the oven so it's not cold from the drawer. When the filling and the dough are ready, season the pan with salt, pepper, and bacon fat. Add the bottom crust (or not), your filling, then the top crust, and place it in the oven at 350 – 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to get a perfectly golden, flaky crust.